Archival Principles: Authenticity

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block AI conclude my series on archival principles today with a look at authenticity.  The SAA Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology defines authenticity as:

the quality of being genuine, not a counterfeit, and free from tampering, and is typically inferred from internal and external evidence, including its physical characteristics, structure, content, and context.

Often times, the evaluation of authenticity focuses on the creation of the record and the path taken by this record before it comes to rest in an archival repository.  This is summed up by the term provenance, or “information regarding the origins, custody, and ownership of an item or collection.”  I think archivists have embraced the principle of authenticity because of the desire to demonstrate the uniqueness of archival records.

Authenticity used to be demonstrated by signatures or wax seals, and these could be validated by testing inks and papers.  But with the emergence of born-digital records, there are no tactile measurements of authenticity.  Instead, many archivists have adapted the tools of digital forensics in order to be able to demonstrate that no changes have occurred to the files since they were deposited at the archival repository.

While for some authenticity may also bring the connotation of reliability, that gets complicated in the archival realm, so that will be the topic for musings on another day.


Archival Principles: Access

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block AThe SAA Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology defines access as:

1. The ability to locate relevant information through the use of catalogs, indexes, finding aids, or other tools.

2. The permission to locate and retrieve information for use (consultation or reference) within legally established restrictions of privacy, confidentiality, and security clearance.

There are occasional exceptions to the rule, but I generally argue that if materials warrant archival preservation, they need to be made accessible.  The arrangement process I described last week helps facilitate access to archival records by identifying their content and other elements and concisely recording this information in a finding aid or other research aid.  Unfortunately, thoughts about access don’t always seem to bear on decisions about accessioning or preserving materials.  In researching my master’s paper, I found particularly with born-digital materials a lack of planning about how electronic materials will be made accessible to researchers.

Traditionally, access to archival records has been provided to researchers who come to the reading rooms of archival repositories.  Occasionally, remote researchers would request materials be microfilmed for their review off-site.  Increasingly, the researcher’s impulse to “let me Google that” is leading repositories to consider digitizing materials to make them available for online access.

There are certainly advantages to providing remote access to digital copies of archival materials.  For one, doing so removes some of the stumbling blocks that researchers unfamiliar with archival practices and protocols face when visiting a reading room for the first time.  It can also broaden the reach of your repository to those who may never be able to darken the door.

But there are also accompanying disadvantages.  Items that are put online can often be discovered by search engine rather than by navigating through a finding aid on the archives website.  Archives are increasingly thinking about the metadata they associate with files to enhance this discoverability, but making it easier for people to Google materials means they may miss out on the context of the rest of the collection in which the particular document or picture is located.  Without any personal interactions with an archivist, the researcher may also miss out on advice about other related materials.

The other issue repositories must address if they want to provide online access — and which can become a disadvantage if it’s ignored — is what’s the plan for accomplishing this?

  • What should be digitized — individual items that are requested? entire collections that are heavily researched? everything?
  • Can the scanning be handled in-house or will it need to be outsourced?
  • Does the repository have a collection management system that can provide the technological infrastructure necessary to upload digital assets to the World Wide Web?

Much more could be written about this, but for now I’ll conclude by saying that scanning materials in a haphazard will only create headaches both in the short-term and definitely in the long-term.

One final issue that has become more contentious in the era of online access is the appropriate role/responsibility of the archival repository in protecting the privacy and confidentiality of the donors and the subjects of the archival materials.  When these materials were only available under restricted conditions within archival reading rooms, many donors didn’t think too carefully about the ramifications of the materials being publicly accessible.  But now even with yearbooks and college newspapers and other materials that were clearly public at the time of their publication are appearing with increasing regularity among digital collections, more and more people are embracing the idea long common in Europe of the right to be forgotten — and archival repositories are left to figure out how to handle take-down requests.

Needless to say, there’s still a lot of work to be done in the realm of archival access.

Archival Principles: Organization

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block OArchivists are responsible for both physical and intellectual control over the collections in their repository.  Physical control is established with a good inventory system for tracking where collections are housed and through the physical arrangement of the materials.  Intellectual control is asserted through the conceptualization of how best to organize the materials based on their development and use and also through the description process.  Archival processing = arrangement + description.

Arrangement usually creates levels to organize the materials, often drilling down into series, files, and items.  As the materials are perused for this purpose, the archivist also engages in a process known as weeding, which entails removing duplicates as well as out-of-scope materials.  Often times, the donor agreement specifies what should happen to such materials that will not be retained permanently at the archive.

Description is intended to explain the content, structure, and context of the archival collection.  The primary output of this work is known as the finding aid.  Finding aids can take the form of online catalogs, inventories, indexes, and general holdings guides.  Finding aids often include not only information about archival processing but also the acquisition of the materials, the media on which they are recorded, and the size of the collection.

Standards are key to archival processing, especially description.  Archivists worldwide adhere to standards for the structure of archival finding aids for numerous reasons:

  • efficiency
  • increased findability of materials by users
  • easier collaboration among repositories

Standards for archival description have existed since the late 19th century, but the advent of the World Wide Web has encouraged their adoption because it facilitates the accumulation of information about archival materials into federated databases that are easily searched by researchers, who are spared the tedium and time investment of searching each repository individually for relevant materials.  Some repositories have come together to create consortia for this purpose, such as the Online Archive of California and Archives West, rather than have the findability of their collections depend solely on the algorithms of Internet search engines.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the principle of context and suggested context can be used to help patrons understand the documents they research.  Archivists record much of this information during the process of arranging and describing an archival collection.  Interestingly, this information is possibly reflected in different parts of the finding aid for an archival collection.  According to Describing Archives: A Content Standard, the administrative or biographical history element “describes the relationship of creators to archival materials by providing information about the context in which those materials were created.”  The scope and content element is intended to help users evaluate the relevance of materials for their research and includes information such as how the materials were generated, forms of the records, dates and places, subject matter, etc.

Archival Principles: Preservation

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block PThe SAA Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology defines preservation in these ways:

1. The professional discipline of protecting materials by minimizing chemical and physical deterioration and damage to minimize the loss of information and to extend the life of cultural property.

2. The act of keeping from harm, injury, decay, or destruction, especially through noninvasive treatment.

The notes go on to suggest preservation might be considered distinct from conservation or might be considered a subdiscipline of conservation.  In her book Archives: Principles and Practices, Laura Millar takes a slightly different approach.  She cast preservation as a more passive activity, encompassing such things as maintaining appropriate environmental conditions, while conservation is a more active process of protecting materials through physical and chemical treatments.  In their book Understanding Archives & Manuscripts, James O’Toole and Richard Cox see preservation as more of an intervention by the archivist to arrest or prevent degradation of the records.  While the common notion of preservation work calls to mind paper records, O’Toole and Cox acknowledge that digital records also necessitate preservation — and, in fact, the archivist ideally will have a voice in the creation of the systems that will maintain these digital records, so as to ensure they can be appropriately retained.

The element of preservation that I appreciate is the necessarily long-term view it requires.  The assessment of potential risks to the records and the application of appropriate strategies to mitigate those risks are done with an eye towards preserving those records that have enduring value for their creators and for researchers.  Come back in a few weeks to see more about how records are accessed.

Archival Principles: Context


block CLast week, I began reflecting on some key archival principles.  Having already considered appraisal, now I turn to context.  (If you’ve visited here before, you’ll recognize that context is an important concept for me — check the category on the right for other related posts.)

The SAA Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology defines context in two ways:

1. The organizational, functional, and operational circumstances surrounding materials’ creation, receipt, storage, or use, and its relationship to other materials.

2. The circumstances that a user may bring to a document that influences that user’s understanding of the document.

The note accompanying these definitions explains that context, along with content and structure, is one of the fundamental aspects of a record.  My own professional context is that I’m currently working in records management, so it makes sense context is on my brain.  The first of these definitions lends itself to connecting with another archival concept, that of original order.  In the best of all possible worlds, archivists commit themselves to preserving the original order of documents, with this notion that the organization provided by the records’ creator helps to provide some relevant context for them.  Of course, occasionally, documents are transferred to a repository absent of any discernible order or disheveled from a crisis or a move, so this is not always possible.

In my opinion, the second definition is too narrow.  It reflects the postmodernist notion of reader-response theory, acknowledging that the experiences, biases, and expectations of archival users can impact how they understand a document.  But I think the very context of a document’s creation — when, by and for whom, why, where — also bears on the interpretation of that document.  For more on this, come back in a few weeks to learn about Organization.

Archival Principles: Appraisal

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It’s been a little while since I gave up my weekly posting schedule on this blog, but with this being a season for discipline, I’ve determined it’s a good time for me to try to put into layman’s terms the principles of archival work.

archival principles blocksThere could be debate about what deserves to be in this list, but these are the concepts that will undergird my six-week arc.

block AIn the SAA Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology, the first two definitions for appraisal have the most relevance for my discussion:

1. The process of identifying materials offered to an archives that have sufficient value to be accessioned.

2. The process of determining the length of time records should be retained, based on legal requirements and on their current and potential usefulness.

The former definition applies more to special collections, while the latter shapes the records retention and disposition schedules common in government or corporate settings that identify those records with enduring value that deserve to be preserved in an archive.  In both cases, appraisal decisions should be made in light of the repository’s collection policy, which should define the scope and focus of collecting priorities.

While archival repositories generally shy away from monetary appraisal of collections, there is no doubt still a type of valuation that occurs in the appraisals conducted at archives.  This makes many nervous — fearing that “right” documents may be overlooked while the “wrong” ones are preserved — and so they cling to the 1930s notion that the integrity, authenticity, and impartiality of records can only be guaranteed when there is no intervention by an archivist in a selection process.

Yet even with the resulting discomfort, many archivists recognize this all-encompassing approach to archival collections is impossible in face of the quantity of modern documentation.  Although it remains to be seen whether born-digital records will turn all of this on its head, for the time being, the reigning post-World War Two archival idea is that records collected by an archives should be those with long-term reference and research value.  While reference value tends to correspond to the primary value of the records, research value can generate wildly tangential secondary values for records.  Just think, for example, of how the meticulous records maintained by German soldiers at World War Two concentration camps have been used to prove charges of genocide.

Needless to say, secondary research values can be difficult to predict and are prone to fluctuations based on current methodologies and topics of interest.  To prevent being whipped about changing priorities, archives must have clear collection policies that can inform these appraisal decisions.  Whether it’s the appraisal conducted by a special collections repository that is offered a collection or the up-front appraisal incorporated into a retention and disposition schedule, they can both be sheltered from criticism by the existence of a clear collection policy.

Appraisal is an archival principle that should be embraced, not avoided.  Good reasoned decisions must be made by professionals in order to avoid the accumulation of disjointed and haphazard collections of materials that will not be intellectually accessible to researchers nor necessary for the records creators.  While errors in judgment may occur from time to time, archivists should not be frozen into inaction out of fear of not identifying the greatest-letter-of-all-time.  Come back in future weeks to see how other archival principles can help to inform these appraisal decisions.